Those gory, gory days

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Disease and death were all many Victorians had to look forward to. Carolyn O'Grady tours three museums which chart Britain's medical history

It's difficult for schoolchildren to comprehend the great strides that medicine and sanitation have made in the last 150 years and how disease-ridden life was in Victorian Britain. A look at the lives of people from that time can bring this home in a vivid way.

Take the story of Thomas Sowden, a Leeds night soil collector in 1842. His job - surely one of the least attractive ever recorded - was to shovel excrement from the communal privy into a pit. Working in Bray's Yard, he took a drink from a nearby water pump and contracted typhoid fever. By that time he had fathered four children, all of whom died before the age of five.

Or the tale of James Wilson, 11, an orphan who lived in the workhouse for almost nine years. He was working for the bookseller Mr Finch when he drank infected milk and promptly got diptheria.

Thomas and James are two characters whose fate pupils can follow on a trail through the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds. Through them they can gain an insight into a time when 20 per cent of children died before their fifth birthday, childbirth killed one in 30 mothers and infectious diseases such as TB, cholera and measles coursed unchecked through overcrowded and filthy slums in our cities.

You only have to walk through the museum's horribly real 19th century city street, with its array of diseased meat in the butchers, its contaminated well; unsanitary slaughterhouse, a communal privy - the river was the sewer - and filthy and overcrowded lodging house, to appreciate how the odds were stacked against anyone reaching their teens let alone the 42 years achieved by Thomas Sowden. Pupils who look into the houses, shops and lodging house and read about the inhabitants are both disgusted and fascinated - it's an intense educational experience.

"Education has always been at the heart of this project," says Helen Patching, the museum's education officer. "We have education advisers on board right from the start, and continue to do so." The museum produces resource packs linked to GCSE units on Victorian Britain and the GCSE Medicine Through Time syllabus as well as others for key stages 2 and 3.

Some contain letters, birth certificates and other information with which children can research one or more of the characters portrayed in the museum. At the Thackray they can investigate what cures were available.

Herbal remedies; medicines from the apothecary, quack medicines and superstitions such as the belief that passing a baby under a donkey cured whooping cough.

The museum goes on to illustrate the improvements in sanitation and housing which began in the latter half of the 19th century coinciding with the discovery of vaccines, antibiotics, antiseptics and anaesthetics and, later, X-rays, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging.

Leeds may have one of the most comprehensive medical museums in the country, and one with an undoubtedly strong and effective educational focus, but London is the capital of medical museums, with a huge number, many attached to hospitals.

For a sense of how far surgery has progressed from the gory, anaesthetic and antiseptic-free days of the mid-19th century go to the Old Operating Theatre Museum in Southwark, on the south side of Westminster Bridge.

Located in the former garret of St Thomas's Church, it was claimed as an operating theatre by the hospital across the road.

In this small bullring-like auditorium, surrounded by steep terraces where students came to gawp at the poor soul who was losing his arm leg or more, the most elementary rules of hygiene were ignored because they were not recognised. In the same building is a museum on the development of medicine and surgery. Not for younger pupils perhaps, but a fascinating insight into medical progress.

The Lady with the Lamp tag did Florence Nightingale a disservice: at one stroke romanticising her and belittling her achievements. The Florence Nightingale Museum is a good corrective, establishing her as a hard-headed administrator, as well as a gifted nurse, who raised the standards and repute of nursing. (Florence Nightingale is specifically mentioned in the national curriculum at key stages 1,2 and 4 and schools make up the majority of visitors).

The museum, which also houses a small display on Mary Seacole, the Jamaican-born nurse who also helped the troops in the Crimea, is next door to St Thomas's Hospital. It offers a range of school visits, a teachers'

pack and poster.

No one would dispute that in medical terms life in Britain has improved, but that doesn't mean medical history is guaranteed a happy-ever-after story. In many developing countries, life expectancy is as low as it was in 19th century Britain. New diseases are emerging globally and many infectious diseases, such as TB, are again on the rise in the West.

Medical progress is not assured, and many of these museums draw attention to this fact as well as to progress made. An understanding of how far we have come in the last century and a half can also lead into a discussion on these new challenges and the dangers of complacency.

* For information on many of the London Medical Museums go to:

Florence Nightingale Museum: Tel 020 7620 0374

Old Operating Theatre Museum, Tel 020 7955 4791

To do a geographical search on medically interesting buildings, artefacts and museums in your area go to:

You might find a building that was the site or an old leper hospital or an old contaminated well that was the source of a cholera epidemic in your area.

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